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Why Source Safe Graphics for Books and e-Books?

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PUBLISHED MAY/JUNE 2018

by Bonnie Gropp, Communications Manager, Vital Imagery Ltd. —


Bonnie Gropp

Follow these valuable rules when obtaining images for your book to avoid copyright infringement headaches.

The completion of a literary work, whether modest or ambitious, is the culmination of the author’s talent and dedication to the project. In it, regardless of the publication’s success, the writer’s name endures through time and generations. The last thing the author wants is to have their name sullied as a result of images selected to grace the cover or inside pages.

In literature, the goal is to draw the reader into the story or details. Book lovers know that losing oneself in words can be a wondrous journey. Yet it’s the graphic elements you apply to the tome that encourages readers to go on this adventure in the first place.

But not everyone is a bestselling author with the means to hire someone to create an original piece of art for their work. Assuming you haven’t added “photographer” or “illustrator” to your resume, what options remain for adding visual interest to your literary efforts?

It is with this question where the trouble can begin.

Searching the internet for images is the obvious step to take. The veritable wealth and diversity of what’s available is impressive. While the graphics might not be quite as true to one’s vision as custom artwork, the possibility of finding a graphic that appeals to taste and style, that exemplifies a message and tone in line with what is on the pages, is quite possible. However, in beginning the search, you need to be cognizant of the rules that protect these images.

One of the first words to avoid when sourcing images for your book is “free.” If ever there was a time to remember you only get what you pay for, this is it. Taking free images from the web is, quite simply, not worth the risk.

Let’s look first at the danger of accepting an unknown entity into your personal space. Just as you wouldn’t admit a stranger into your home, you must be wary of what you load onto your computer. Many have learned the hard way that clicking an unknown link or uploading an unverified document leads to nothing but trouble. When you pick a “free” image from an uncredited source, there is a real possibility of downloading an image that contains a virus.

There is another, even more potentially costly reason to steer clear of dragging and dropping a “free” image into your book, one that should make everybody think twice before taking a chance. When searching these types of images online, what you often don’t see is the very fine print indicating that the image you chose might be covered by copyright. The onus is soundly on the user to do their due diligence and find out. Failure to do so could result in often harsh penalties. Not to mention the harm it could do to a reputation. And with image recognition technology available today, coupled with high volume contingency practices, the probability of getting caught is far greater than one might expect.

New York City-based attorney Nancy Wolff, a partner at Cowan, Debaets, Abrahams, and Sheppard, is experienced in copyright, trademark, and digital media law. She confirms that pulling images from unreliable sources on the internet is risky. It exposes the user not just to copyright infringement concerns, but also offers no indemnification nor third-party clearance in the event a model release is required. Even a photo of a recognizable building could land someone in hot water if they have no contract stating they have the right to reproduce the image.

According to Section 102(5) of the United States Copyright Act Title 17, copyright is in place to protect “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.” It is the creator of the work who owns the copyright, unless those rights have been transferred in writing. In the case of legitimate online services providing images from illustrators and photographers, they have been authorized, by contract, the grant of nonexclusive rights. This means that in selecting an image from one of these sources, you are protected against copyright infringement, provided your project falls within the website’s terms of use. You don’t, however, have the exclusive right to it.

Being charged with copyright infringement in the United States can result in an order to cease and desist, to destroy any materials created with the image as part of it, or in monetary penalties up to an impressive $150,000. Even ignorance won’t save you. If the image was “mislabeled” and you can prove that you had no idea that it was protected, you could still pay $250, says Wolff.

Copyright laws differ from country to country, as do the repercussions. The responsibility of ensuring you are legally permitted to use a particular image or set of images you’ve uncovered on the internet in your publication lies entirely with you. It’s only good business to learn and understand the copyright laws in your country.

Since there will always be people who need images, the goal needs to be to find ones that will eliminate any concerns. Online graphics services provide access to royalty-free and rights-managed content. The latter permits a one-time use of a photo as outlined in the contract. To incorporate the photo into a different project would require the purchase of an additional license. Royalty-free, on the other hand, means that once you buy an image, photo, or subscription, you need not pay any further fees for each use of the content from the website.

Once you’ve invested so much of yourself in the piece of literature you’ve created, you don’t want to do anything to discredit yourself or your work. Using a reputable source for the images that provide the visual appeal is really a positive for both sides. Not only can you publish the fruit of your labor free of worry, but you can also be proud that you were respectful of another artist’s rights of ownership.


Bonnie Gropp is the communications manager for Vital Imagery Ltd. She came to the world of images through a background in journalism, including 20 years as editor of a community newspaper. For the past eight years, she has, in her blogs and newsletters, provided insight and information on a variety of topics relevant to the digital media industry.


For another informative look at legal issues in the publishing industry, check out this IBPA Independent article: Navigating the Legal Landscape of Manuscript Reviews.

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